On Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West & The Lakers Shaking Their Demons

01.12.12 6 years ago 11 Comments

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If pictures are truly worth a thousand words, the one cemented above could be worth well over a million. Outside of the birth of HBO and Atari amongst other things, 1972 represented the year the Los Angeles Lakers finally came full circle. It sounds odd now in 2012 given what we’ve witnessed from the franchise iconically dubbed as “Showtime” over the 1980’s and 2000’s, but there was a time when they struggled to become leaders of their own wolf pack.

You see, for much of the NBA’s younger and more formative years, Bill Russell and Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics commanded the league in such a dominant fashion that the legacy still looms largely over Beantown fans and the game’s history in general. Two years into the often proclaimed “greatest decade ever,” the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers ran the gauntlet for what continues to hold court as arguably the most impressive season of all time. With a final record of 69-13 and still the longest winning streak in the sport’s pro history (33), Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain righted wrongs that had haunted their careers for years. Peter Carry of Sports Illustrated crafted a poignant piece on the team during the days leading to their Finals victory over Jerry Lucas, Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks.

The psychological tug of war between what appeared inevitable and ghosts of championships past was a crucial, yet often overlooked factor in the series. Carry documents these tense moments in the Lakers organization. Not many were sure Wilt would even be able to suit up for Game 5 after suffering a severely sprained wrist left him highly doubtful. “Wearing the padded hand wraps interior linemen use, Chamberlain played his best game of a super series. He scored 24 points. He had 29 rebounds. On defense, he harassed Knick shooters far outside, yet still scrambled back to block inside shots,” wrote the S.I. journalist.

On West, however, who at this point was an incredible 0 for 7 in his Finals appearances, he notes the pressure of the moment was beginning to dawn on him. Not whether or not he would win, but instead, how exactly he would celebrate. The realization was a sweet one for the man now known as the NBA’s logo and “Mr. Clutch,” who contemplated retirement before the season. “He [West] had lain awake trying to figure out how he should act when he finally won a championship after so many near misses, “I don’t yell much, and I’m not much of a drinker,” he said. “Really, I can’t figure out much that I’ll be able to do except maybe smile a lot.”

A magnificent read for anyone in love with the game, and even more powerful read for anyone old enough to remember this actual series, the uniqueness of Carry’s piece stems from the fact it was written in real time. History tends to alter how we perceive people, moments and, in sports, squads and players. His 1972 article strips to the bones the significance of what this title meant to not only the team, but individual careers. Arguably the eeriest line came when speaking on the perception of Chamberlain’s storied career – which already included one title before this – and the direct comparison it now has with another present day larger-than-life megastar.

“In the end, he shut up—perhaps forever—those critics who for years claimed that he was a quitter, that he could not win important games.”

What are the chances of history repeats itself 40 years later in a few months?

Swish And They’re In [SI Vault]

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